Close Air —Part III

Korean War Map 001The Marine Corps continued its tradition of forward-looking innovation after World War II —much of this accomplished in the face of post-war demobilization and mandatory reduction in forces. President Truman and Defense Secretary Louis Johnson took an axe to all the military services. In the Marine Corps, a reduction of infantry regiments to two battalions, rather than the standard three. Instead of three rifle companies per battalion, there were only two. Instead of three infantry platoons per rifle company, there were only two. Thus, in June 1950 when communist North Korea invaded South Korea, the United States was barely able to respond. The problem facing most military units was not simply a matter of post-war manpower reductions —it was also a matter of inadequate training and poor leadership at the junior officer and mid-range NCO levels. Such conditions nearly handed the United States a disastrous defeat. At this time, the Marine Corps was fortunate, since most of its company grade officers and NCOs were combat veterans of World War II. They might have operated with fewer rifle platoons and aircraft, but they knew what they had to do.

Pushed all the way to the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, the Eighth US Army was barely able to hold on to the area of Pusan against a highly aggressive, well trained, and well-equipped North Korean army. In only five weeks from the North Korean invasion, the First Provisional Marine Corps brigade arrived in Pusan —the last remaining port available to United Nations forces. The brigade deployed as an integrated air-ground team —as it had been envisioned in 1933. A reconstituted 5th Marine Regiment paired with Marine Aircraft Group-33 (consisting of two Corsair squadrons, one night-fighter squadron, and a light observation squadron with four Sikorsky helicopters). The Brigade, known as the Fire Brigade, operated under the command of Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, a seasoned combat leader.  The first thing Marines did after their arrival in Pusan was go into the attack.

MAG-33 flew close air support missions from escort carriers on station in the Sea of Japan. The combined firepower of American infantry and ground attack aircraft proved decisive in a number of clashes with tank-led North Korean forces along the Naktong River. These small-scale tactical victories raised the morale of front line forces and bought much needed time to develop an aggressive strategy. In September, the balance of the 1st Marine Division arrived in Korea, absorbed the Fire Brigade, and sailed into the Yellow Sea as the point of General MacArthur’s spear at Inchon. The hard work finally paid off and now everyone knew that the Marine Corps air-ground team packed a lethal punch.

CAS Korea 1950 001The Korean War reunited the 1st Marine Divison and 1st Marine Aircraft Wing for the first time since Guadalcanal; never before was there a time when Marine Corps close air support was more badly needed, or more responsively provided than in the 90-day period between the Inchon landing and the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir. Marine F4U Corsairs launched their attacks from escort carriers and expeditionary airfields, supporting battalions from Wolmi-do Island, across the Han River, and into the urban setting of Seoul —South Korea’s capital city. The North Koreans threw up one barricade after another to stop the advance of Marine infantry units, but none of these survived the assault of Marine Corsairs.

Later, as Marine infantry fought to extricate themselves from ten Chinese divisions trying to annihilate them, during the coldest winter in memory around the Chosin Reservoir, Marine aircraft remained on station overhead during every daylight hour. At the conclusion of the Chosin Reservoir campaign, the Commanding General of the 1st Marine Division, Major General Oliver P. Smith commended Marine pilots: “Never in its history has Marine aviation given more proof of its indispensible value to ground Marines. A bond of understanding has been established here that will never be broken.”

We define Close Air Support (CAS) as an air action by fixed and rotary wing aircraft, directed against hostile targets in close proximity to friendly forces. Marine Corps aviation is organized and equipped today to perform its primary function of assault, support, anti-aircraft warfare, offensive air support, electronic warfare, control of aircraft and missiles, and expeditionary reconnaissance. These things are inherently dangerous to pilots and grunts alike. There is nothing simple about air-ground coordination, or of placing needed ordnance on target, on time. These skill sets take years of constant training to achieve. Marine riflemen take a keen interest in the proximity of close air. To Marines, close air support means one thing: damn close.

About Helicopters

“The thing is, helicopters are different from planes. An airplane by its nature wants to fly and if not interfered with too strongly by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly.

“A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls, working in opposition to each other; and if there is any disturbance in the delicate balance, the helicopter stops flying immediately and disastrously. There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter.

“This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot; and why, in generality, airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble.

“They know if anything bad has not happened, it is about to.”

—Harry Reasoner, ABC Evening News, 16 February 1971

Hot LZ 001What Mr. Reasoner said is absolutely true. Piloting a helicopter takes a skill set few on this earth are capable of, but it takes even more than that to pilot it under harsh conditions. Equally difficult was the entire process of adapting this ungainly aircraft to sophisticated military operations, but the military’s success in achieving this seems apparent by the number of our warrior’s lives saved by skillfully flown helicopters, from resupplying them with much needed munitions in order to continue the fight, to evacuating our wounded to field hospitals. No matter what mission our helicopter pilots undertake, it is exceedingly dangerous work.

The process has always been evolutionary, beginning with the question, “How might we use these machines to enhance our combat capabilities?”

HO3S 002The Marines took possession of its first two helicopters on 9 February 1948. The Sikorsky HO3S was a fragile airframe with significantly limited performance parameters, but it was a start. When the Korean War broke out, Marines were scrambling to put together a provisional brigade to help shore up Army units in Korea pushed all the way south to the end of the peninsula —the Pusan Perimeter. Until the arrival of the Marines, led by Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, the Korean issue was in doubt. General Craig took with him a seriously understrength regiment, but also a Marine Air Group consisting of three fighter squadrons and one observation squadron, VMO-6. The observation squadron operated eight fixed-wing light aircraft and four HOS3-1 helicopters.

General Craig could not have been happier with these new airframes. As he later reported, “Marine Helicopters have proven invaluable. They have been used for every conceivable type of mission. The Brigade utilized helicopters for liaison, reconnaissance, evacuation of wounded, rescue of Marine flyers downed in enemy territory, observation, messenger service, guard mail at sea, posting and supplying out-guards on dominating terrain, and the resupply of small units by air.”

Nevertheless, the early helicopters were somewhat limited in their lift capability, an important lesson for Marines because of the battle of the Changjin (Chosin) Reservoir. In the frigid conditions of North Korea, early helicopters barely achieved 5,000 feet in altitude in an area where mountains reached from between 4,600 and 6,000 feet in above sea level.

Sikorsky HOS4 001In 1948, the Marines hoped to activate two assault/transport helicopter squadrons by 1954, but the Korean War accelerated this timetable by a wide margin. The Marines settled on the HOS4, an airframe severally designated for service with the Navy-Marine Corps-Coast Guard, and the Army-Air Force. Used by both the Army and Marine Corps in the Korean War, the Marines called their version of this helicopter the HRS-1.

With the Korean War now in full swing, the Marine Corps expanded its requirements from two helicopter squadrons to four; each of these would receive the HRS-1 helicopter pictured immediately above. When HMR-161 went to Korea, it had two primary missions: combat operations, and testing and evaluation of the concept for employing of vertical lift aircraft. By late 1953, the Marine Corps had more experience in helicopter operations, possessed more helicopters, more trained pilots and crewmen, than any other military organization in the world. There is a reason for this: the National Security Act of 1947 made the Marine Corps responsible for developing phases of amphibious operations that pertained to tactics, techniques, and equipment used by the landing forces. Their acquired expertise is what led Marine helicopter squadrons to Vietnam

Over the next ten years, US politicians shifted their attentions from Korea to a place hardly anyone had ever heard of: Vietnam. What was evolving there was quite complex. The French, badly defeated by the North Vietnamese forces in 1954, were going home—a fact that left the Republic of South Vietnam with a weak military posture. To help shore up the South Vietnamese defense establishment, the United States began to send mentors to help train, organize, and advise the South Vietnamese military leadership. A small number of Marines participated in joint staff, communications, and advisory roles—particularly those advising the emerging Vietnamese Marines (RVMC).

Piasecki_h-21As part of the military assistance mission to South Vietnam, the United States provided Army aviation companies (helicopter). In late 1961, the Army operated two companies equipped with the Piasecki[1] H-21 tandem rotor aircraft. While capable of transporting ten fully equipped assault troops and crew, the H-21 proved only marginally suited to service in a high humidity environment, and only slightly suitable for night operations.

By the end of 1961, General Paul D. Harkins (Commanding MAAG, Vietnam) realized that he needed additional helicopter assets; he requested two additional aviation companies. While the JCS approved a third aviation company, for Vietnam, the JCS indicated some reservations about continued use of the H-21. They directed the Commander in Chief, Pacific to review total requirements for helicopter operations in Vietnam. Admiral Felt made two recommendations: first, that the JCS approve a fourth aviation company for Vietnam, and second, the assignment of Marine helicopter pilots to augment Army aviation companies.

The problem with Admiral Felt’s recommendation was that Marine Corps pilots were not familiar with the operation of the H-21 tandem rotor helicopter, nor were Marine pilots sufficiently familiar with the Army’s aviation standardization procedures. In the meantime, an additional aviation company in Oklahoma received a warning order to begin preparing for deployment to South Vietnam.

General Harkins, having assigned the 93rd Aviation Company to Da Nang, requested cancellation of the fourth aviation company and instead asked for a Marine Corps helicopter squadron for operations within the Mekong Delta. “When the tempo of operations permit, the Marine Corps squadron will be relocated to I Corps and the 93rd Company to III Corps,” Harkins said.

Sikorsky UH-34D 001Rapid deployment is what Marines do for a living, so it was no surprise to learn that there were two squadrons available to General Harkins within a very short time. The first was HMM 362[2] (Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 362). HMM-362 had been part of the Special Landing Force (SLF) aboard the USS Princeton (LPH-5) patrolling the South China Sea. HMM-261 was also available, but ordered to an emergency deployment in Thailand.

HMM-362 became the lead element of OPERATION SHUFLY, arriving at Soc Trang, south of the city of Saigon, for operations in the Mekong Delta on 15 April 1962. The squadron lifted their first troops into battle on 22 April 1962 —the first Marine Corps combat unit to serve in Vietnam. Before their re-designation in 1969, HMM-362 participated in operations at Ky Ha, Marble Mountain, Hue, and Phu Bai. They also supported operations from the sea while serving aboard the USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2), USS Okinawa (LPH-3), and USS Princeton (CV-37/LPH-5).

V22-OspreyIf Mr. Reasoner thought helicopters were different sixty-six years ago, then they have become more so since 2005 when the Marine Corps accepted their first V-22 Osprey. The first two squadrons of this type of aircraft were designated Marine Medium Tilt-rotor Squadron (VMM)-263 and VMM-266.




[1] Frank Piasecki (1918-2008) was an aeronautical engineer and the man that pioneered tandem rotor helicopter designs and developed the concept of vectored thrust through the use of a ducted propeller.

[2] HMM-362 would later receive the CH 53 helicopter and the new designation HMH. They called themselves the Ugly Angels.

We Call Him Chesty

In my younger years, conventional parents and teachers encouraged boys and girls to read stories written about famous Americans.  I recall reading about William Penn, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, George Custer, Ulysses Grant, and Robert E. Lee.  They weren’t academically vetted manuscripts, of course —they were intended for elementary aged children, after all.  It is also true that some of these stories contained as much myth as fact, but it was the reading of these stories that gave children heroes —people who were, according to pre-communist educators, worthy of emulation.

VMI 1917I am not alone, apparently.  Another young man was exposed to these kinds of stories.  His name was Lewis Burwell Puller.  He was born in West Point, Virginia on 26 June 1898 —making him a little more than 8 years younger than my grandfather.  He grew up reading the same kinds of stories as I did more than 50 years later, but he also grew up listening to the tales of civil war veterans as they recalled the great confederate generals: Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, and Stuart.  Puller attempted to join the Army in 1916 to fight in the border war with Mexico, but he was too young and his mother refused to sign his enlistment papers.

In 1917, Puller attended the Virginia Military Institute, but left at the end of his first year because World War I was still going on; he said he wanted to go to the sound of the guns.  By this time, the tales of the 5th Marine Regiment at Belleau Wood had inspired Puller to enlist in the U. S. Marine Corps, which he did in 1918.  Private Puller was shipped off to boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina.

Puller never saw combat during World War I, but the Marine Corps was expanding; not long after graduating from boot camp, Puller was sent to NCO School and subsequently, Officers Candidate School (OCS).  On 16 June 1919, Puller received a commission to Second Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps Reserve.  A year later, large-scale military deactivations led to his release from active duty.  Puller was placed on inactive status and assigned the rank of corporal.

Banana Wars 001During the years progressives refer to as the banana wars, Marine Corps Noncommissioned Officers were often commissioned as officers in the military of public safety services of foreign countries.  It was thus that Corporal Puller received orders to serve in the Gendarmerie d’Haiti in the rank of lieutenant.  US occupation of Haiti began in 1915 and lasted until 1934.  Woodrow Wilson first sent the Marines to Haiti resulting from a series of political assassinations carried out by peasant brigands called Cacos.  For more than five years, Puller participated in 40 operations against the Cacos and in 1922, served as an adjutant to Major Alexander Vandegrift.  Major General Vandegrift would later command the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal, win the Medal of Honor, and accept appointment as Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Puller CaptainPuller was re-commissioned a second lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps in 1924.  After attending service schools and two assignments at Marine security barracks, Puller was assigned in 1928 to duty with the Nicaraguan National Guard detachment.  During his service in Nicaragua, Puller was awarded two Navy Cross medals, representing the nations second highest award for valor.

By the time Puller was promoted to major, he had additionally served with the American Legation in China on two occasions, two sea duty tours aboard USS Augusta, and instructor duty at the Marine Corps basic school for officers.  In August 1941, Puller was assigned to command the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, which was at the time stationed at New River, North Carolina.  The base was later renamed Camp Lejeune.

x-defaultDuring World War II, Puller commanded Marines on Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, New Britain, Pelélieu, and various elements of the 7th Marines, 5th Marines, and 1st Marines.  During the Pacific Campaign, Puller received a Bronze Star Medal, his third and fourth award of the Navy Cross, the Legion of Merit, and a promotion to Colonel.

At the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, Puller was again assigned to command the 1st Marine Regiment.  He participated in the landing at Inchon, the 1st Marine Division’s advance to the Chosin Reservoir, and its retrograde below the 38th parallel.  During this period, Puller was awarded the Silver Star medal, a second Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Service Cross, and an unprecedented fifth award of the Navy Cross.  It was during this time that Puller is quoted as saying, “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now.  We’ve finally found him.  We’re surrounded.  That simplifies things.”

Puller 001Puller was promoted to Brigadier General in January 1951 and was assigned as Assistant Division Commander of the 1st Marine Division.  Although promoted successively to Lieutenant General, Puller’s health forced him to retire in 1955 with 37 years of service.  In addition to the awards already mentioned, Puller received the Purple Heart Medal, and three awards of the Air Medal.  It is believed that General Puller remains the most highly decorated Marine in the history of the United States Marine Corps.

General Puller passed away in 1971.

The Fire Brigade

The ink on Japan’s instrument of surrender was barely dry when in the framework of the cold war began to manifest itself in the arrangement between the United States and the Soviet Union in their joint control of the Korean peninsula.  The Potsdam Conference (July-August 1945) had decided that the allies would unilaterally divide Korea—as part of the Roosevelt-Stalin plan to rule the world.  No one bothered to tell the Koreans this, of course.

On 8 September 1945, Lieutenant General John R. Hodge arrived in Inchon, Korea to accept the Japanese surrender south of the 38th parallel.  Hodge, having been appointed military governor, directly controlled South Korea as head of the U. S. Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK[1]).  Hodge’s methodology for restoring order and seizing control was to restore power to key Japanese colonial administrators and Korean police collaborators.  Voiding Korean sovereignty resulted in civil insurrections and guerrilla insurgencies.  No one has ever accused the American government of having much sense.

Rhee 001In April 1948, between 14,000 and 60,000 citizens were killed during an uprising by South Korean soldiers, but within a month South Korea held its first national general election.  The Soviets boycotted these elections (naturally), insisting that the United States honor the provisions of the Moscow Conference in March 1948.  Three months later, Korea held it’s parliamentary elections, producing a staunchly anti-communist government, led by a unfalteringly anti-communist dictator, Syngman Rhee.  Opposing Rhee was the North Korean shill, Kim Il-Sung.

In the first half of 1950, Kim Il-Sung traveled to Moscow on several occasions to confer with his masters about reunifying Korea by force, and so we have to say that the Soviet military was extensively involved in putting together a war plan on Kim’s behalf.  Indeed, from 1948 on, the Soviet Union began arming the North Korean army and training (advising) its key components.  Initially, Stalin did not think the time was right for an armed invasion of the southern peninsula; China was still fluttering in the aftermath of its civil war, and Stalin did not want the Soviet Union to become engaged in a war with the United States.  Nevertheless, in April 1950, permission was granted to launch an attack against the South Korean regime.

They pounced on 25 June 1950 and no one in the Truman administration had a clue.

Prior to the invasion, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson somehow managed to exclude Korea from the so-called Strategic Asian Defense Perimeter—a diplomatic guarantee to certain countries and regions in Asia for US military protection.  Truman, it seems, was far more concerned with the security of Europe than he was the Korean peninsula.  At least, this is how the North Koreans and the Soviets saw it.  In any case, on the morning of 25 June 1950, the ever-effeminate UN threatened to hit North Korea with its purse and the North Koreans laughed —as they should.

Truman 001Meanwhile, following the end of World War II, Harry S. Truman[2] decided that the American people could no longer afford a military of any consequence, and so he began significant reductions to army, navy, and strategic air forces.  They called it “Defense Budget Economization.”  It gutted the United States military and created a rift between the Air Force and Navy referred to today as the Revolt of the Admirals.  Truman had no love for either the Navy or Marine Corps.

The effects of these cuts were substantial in the U. S. Marine Corps, which had been reduced from six divisions and five air wings at the peak of their World War II strength, to 3 of each in the post war period.  But it was far worse than that.  The 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton had only two regiments, rather than three.  Each regiment was reduced to two battalions, rather than three; each battalion reduced by one Line Company, and each company reduced to two rifle platoons and a weapons platoon.  Thus, the effect of North Korea’s invasion of South Korea on the morning of 25 June 1950 on the west coast Marines was significant.

Within a few hours of the North Korean attack, General Douglas MacArthur requested of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the immediate assignment of a Marine Regimental Combat Team and a supporting air group.  The JCS would approve his request, but the Marines were going in to war on two-thirds rations: rather than having two regiments, it would have one regiment, one artillery battalion, one company of tanks, and an air group.  Even then it was a massive undertaking to staff a combat capable brigade.  Marines were ordered to Camp Pendleton from everywhere: “Proceed immediately.”  These Marines would form the First Marine Provisional Brigade.  It became known as “The Fire Brigade.”

According to Major Andrew Geer, USMC [3]”The undertone of tension was as tangible as the build-up of a summer electrical storm in Kansas.  To the young Marine there was a definite therapy just in seeing combat veterans going about the job of getting ready.  The hash marks and battle star on a ribbon suddenly became a badge of experience to lean on, to follow.”

Meanwhile, Marines from Hawaii to the East Coast of the United States began clamoring for assignment to combat duty, including one colonel of some renown known to all Marines as “Chesty.”  Assigned to command the brigade was a Marine Corps brigadier general by the name of Edward A. Craig, a distinguished officer who had served in both world wars.  Many of Craig’s key leaders, both officer and enlisted, were combat veterans from World War II.  This was a luxury denied to most Army units at the time, thanks to Truman’s incompetence.

Craig EA 001The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade was officially reactivated on 7 July 1950; it sailed for Korea seven days later.  When they hit the ground in Korea on 3 August 1950, they hit the ground running toward the guns.  Again, “Canteen” Truman and his hatchet man Louis Johnson had so gutted the military that U. S. Army forces in Korea were barely holding on against the onslaught of the North Korean attack.  In short order, the North Korean Army managed to push US Forces all the way south on the Korean peninsula to a place called Pusan —and then encircled it.

Upon arrival in Korea, Brigadier General Craig assembled his subordinate commanders.  He told them:

“The situation is serious.  With the forces available, it is obvious that the perimeter cannot be held in strength.  Eighth Army has adopted the plan of holding thinly and counter-attacking enemy penetrations to keep them off balance, to prevent them from launching a coordinated effort.

“At the moment, General Walker is undecided in what area we’re going to be used.  We may go north of Taegu and operate on the left flank of the 1st Cavalry Division, or we may go west to check an enemy advance along the Masan Road.  It all depends where the where the greatest threat develops.

“We are going into battle against a vicious, well-trained enemy in what will be an extended land campaign.  Unfortunately, we will have to forget the plan of an amphibious landing.  We will miss the vehicles we had to leave behind; much of our moving will be done on foot.  Therefore, we will leave all nonessential supplies and equipment in storage on the docks right here; we’ll carry with us two days rations and two units of fire[4].

General Craig studied the faces of his commanders carefully and then continued:

“The Pusan perimeter is like a weakened dike; the Army intends to use us to plug the holes as they open.  We’re a brigade —a fire brigade.  It will be costly fighting against a numerically superior enemy.  Marines have never lost a battle; this brigade will not be the first to establish such a precedent.  Prepare to move.”

At 2300 hours that very day, Marines began their march to Changwon.  The fire was started.  For the next months, until the 1st Marine Division was brought up to combat strength and shipped to Japan, and General MacArthur had formulated his plan for an unheard of amphibious landing at Inchon (perhaps the last place on the planet anyone should want to make an amphibious landing), 1st Brigade Marines would be thrown into one engagement after another along the Pusan salient.

The Pusan perimeter was an area extending 120 linear miles, consisting of mountains, plains, and rivers.  As the North Koreans forced the US Army to retreat, Eighth Army sent in Marines to recapture lost territory.  Once the Marines defeated the NKA, Army units would reoccupy the terrain, and the Marines redeployed elsewhere.  In some cases, Eighth Army directed the Marines to recover the same ground on multiple occasions.  Too many Marines were dying because Army units lacked the guts to hold on to captured territory.  The Marines were becoming irritated.

We cannot lie this at the feet of the average soldier.  Generally, he was an inexperienced young man who was poorly trained, poorly led, and poorly equipped.  His NCOs were inexperienced in war, the quality of company grade officers was wretched, and his senior officers lacked a warrior ethos.  These factors alone explain why the United States Army in Korea came very close to being destroyed by the North Korean Army.

In 30 days, the Marines of the 1st Provisional Brigade moved more than 350 miles to meet the enemy at critical points.  It was the beginning of bad feelings between Marine and Army units serving in the Korean War —a rancor that is still noticeable at VFW clubs  among those who experienced it first-hand.


[1] This illustrates why the military is famous for acronyms

[2] Harry Truman was barely qualified for enlisted service in the Missouri National Guard due to his poor eyesight.  Having served in an artillery battery between 1905-1911, he rejoined the unit in 1917.  His men elected him as an officer and he was subsequently commissioned a first lieutenant.  He was very popular with his men as the officer in charge of the battalion canteen.

[3] The New Breed: The story of the U. S. Marines in Korea, Battery Press, 1989

[4] A unit of fire is the amount of ammunition a weapon will use in a day of battle.

Frozen Chosin

The Big Picture

The Korean War was not only significant because it was the opening conflict of the Cold War, nor even because of the numbers of American and allied forces who were killed or wounded during the conflict (1950-1953); it was also significant because it was largely the result of two factors: aggressive Soviet policies under Joseph Stalin, and incompetent leadership in the administration of Harry S. Truman, beginning with the heavy handed policies of the United States Army Military Government in Korea, and the incomprehensible stupidity of Secretary of State Dean Acheson—who not only gave us the Korean War, but the Vietnam War as well.

By April 1950, North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung had lost his patience with the US-USSR Joint Commission on the Korean peninsula. He flew to Moscow to ask for Joseph Stalin’s permission to unify Korea by military force. Stalin not only granted his permission, he also provided the war plans to accomplish it.

Thus, on 25 June 1950, the North Korean Army launched an overwhelming invasion of the Republic of South Korea, forcing President Syngman Rhee to evacuate the South Korean capital. The onslaught of North Korean forces surprised everyone on our side of this equation, from the Supreme Allied Commander in Japan, Douglas MacArthur, and President Harry Truman, to Secretary of State Dean Acheson and his inept counterpart, Defense Secretary Louis A. Johnson.

By September 1950, the North Korean Army successfully pushed remnants of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army (numbering 60,000 combat troops) and the 8th U. S. Army, which was poorly led, under strength, and under equipped, into what we today refer to as the Pusan perimeter. Louis Johnson cut the personnel strength of the armed services and reduced equipment strength to the point where our military was only marginally effective. As an example, the 1st Marine Division located at Camp Pendleton, California only consisted of two regiments, rather than three. Infantry regiments consisted of only two battalions, each battalion had only two rifle companies, and rifle companies consisted on only two rifle platoons and a weapons platoon. What the Marine Corps did have, however, was an abundance of company and field grade officers and NCOs who were members of the Old Breed … veterans of World War II.

General MacArthur formed X Corps around the 1st Marine Division, 7th Infantry Division, and various other Army support units. After landing the 1st Marine Division at Inchon, MacArthur used X Corps to deny resupply of the North Korean Army (NKA) operating south of Inchon. MacArthur then directed a campaign designed to destroy the NKA, who rapidly withdrew back across the 38th parallel. He employed the 8th US Army to pursue the NKA on the western side of the peninsula, but split X Corps away from the 8th Army to pursue NKA forces along the eastern area of operations under the command of Major General Ned Almond, who answered directly to MacArthur.

The Snapshot

By November 1950, American Marines were moving north from Wonsan toward the Chosen Reservoir. The 7th Infantry Division moved northward, to the right of the Marines albeit separated by mountainous terrain. MajGen Almond was nothing if not demonstrably incompetent and always at loggerheads with Major General O. P. Smith and Major General David G. Barr, who respectively commanded the 1st Marine Division and 7th Infantry Division. MacArthur ordered X Corps to pursue the retreating North Korean Army northward to the Yalu River.

Barber 001The primary route to the Yalu River was a narrow dirt road cut into the base of steep mountainous terrain located in a harsh and frigid land; it was the only road from Hungnam to Yudam-ni, the main supply route (MSR) for both the Marines and the 7th Infantry Division. It was up to the Marines to secure that road. The company charged with securing the MSR near the Toktong Pass was Company F, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. The officer commanding Fox Company was Captain William E. Barber.

Arctic conditions worsened daily. By Thanksgiving, the mercury averaged twenty below zero at night and the temperatures dropped even lower thanks to the unceasing sharp winds. No amount of clothing protected the Marines from bone-chilling cold. Climate conditions made the Marines lethargic; the mind-numbing cold neutralized as many Marines as enemy bullets.

After performing a reconnaissance of the area with his battalion commander, Captain Barber selected a small, flat-topped rise near the road on the southern shoulder of Toktong-san (highest mountain) between Hagaru to the south, and Yudam-ni to the north. Afterwards, Barber and his battalion commander encountered a Marine Corps warrant officer who remarked how odd it was that ever-present civilian refugees had suddenly disappeared. Worse, the wildlife also seemed to evaporate. This information did not give Captain Barber a warm and fuzzy feeling.

At about this time, the commander of the Ninth Chinese Army (Chinese People’s Volunteers) decided to launch major counterattack against the X Corps from the Chosen Reservoir to Wonsan. His plan called for the destruction of the 1st Marine Division’s two regiments along a line from Yudam-ni to Sinhung-ni (Toktong Pass) and Hagaru-ri. Once this was accomplished, the Ninth Army would destroy the U.S. Army elements (31st Regimental Combat Team of the 7th Infantry Division) and the remainder of the 1st Marine Division on the eastern side of the reservoir. The task of closing the MSR and isolating the Marines along the Yudam-ni road, and preventing the Marines from escape fell to the Chinese 59th Division. Whoever controlled the Toktong pass would control the MSR in both directions.

Facing the Chinese 59th Infantry Division was one company of 240 Marines. Upon arrival at the selected defense site, Captain Barber behaved as if he expected an attack at any moment. He quickly conducted an area orientation with his platoon leaders, issued his operations order while NCOs distributed munitions throughout the company and the weapons platoon registered their mortars. Friendly vehicle traffic along the MSR prevented registering the regiment’s artillery.

Marines developed a defensive perimeter; entrenching activity went on into the night as Marines hacked and chipped at the frozen earth to prepare fighting positions. By 9 PM (2100), half of Fox Company’s Marines settled into sleeping bags; the other half remained on watch.

The Chinese assault came at 0230 the next morning. In its initial assault, the Chinese split the Marines in the mountains, cutting the MSR in numerous places between Hagaru and Yudam-ni. There was only one cork in the bottle: Fox Company’s position overlooking the Toktong Pass.

The first assault was a battalion sized thrust intending to overwhelm Marines manning outposts and forward positions. The Chinese killed fifteen of these thirty-five Marines outright, wounding another nine Marines within the first few minutes. Showers of grenades and all sorts of small arms crashed down among the Marine positions.

In addition, both company mortar positions received a great deal of attention from the Chinese. Within a matter of minutes, enemy fire decimated the 60-mm Mortar section, leaving a private first class in charge. The 81-mm section was likewise fighting for its life; savage hand-to-hand fighting raged all along the company’s 270-degree northward arc.

Barber rallied his Marines. He first brought his mortars in on the attacking Chinese. Then, continuously exposing himself to small arms fire, he consolidated and led his troops in several counterattacks, restoring the company perimeter. Eventually, the Chinese attacks subsided and the attackers withdrew with approaching dawn. Daylight revealed the cost of the night’s battle: Fox Company had twenty dead, fifty-four wounded, three missing; the Chinese left 450 bodies within and in front of the Marine perimeter.

Barber’s post-assault assessment was that his company was critically short of ammunition. Grenades and mortar ammunition were almost nonexistent. He directed his Marines to collect weapons and ammunition from Chinese and Marine dead to supplement their meager supply and requested a supply airdrop. Many Chinese weapons were of American manufacture, supplied to China as part of Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program during World War II.

Captain Barber next requested an air strike on key terrain northwest of Fox Hill where the Chinese had placed snipers to harass the company. Barber’s attached forward artillery observer then managed to register the regiment’s howitzer battery from Hagaru. Meanwhile, Barber organized combat patrols in order to get a better picture of what the company was facing and to predict where the enemy might attack in the coming night. Later in the afternoon, an airdrop resupplied the Marines with ammunition, rations, and medical supplies.

Caring for the wounded was a major problem. Evacuation helicopters were inviting targets for Chinese snipers, so U. S. Navy hospital corpsmen performed miracles with only morphine and field dressings. Working day and night, they tended the wounded at the center of the company position, warming morphine secretes in their mouths. They also kept men from freezing and provided all-important moral support to their patients. Captain Barber constantly reassured his wounded Marines: he would leave no one behind.

As night approached, Marines piled Chinese forward of their fighting positions, using them as sandbags for protection from enemy fire. Again, at 0215, the Chinese began round two. This time, they preceded their assault with a mortar barrage, but the Marines were ready. Marines killed over 100 Chinese during the initial assault alone, but in spite of this, Chinese troops broke through the Marine perimeter. In response, Barber zeroed in his mortars and long-range artillery with deadly effect. He then rushed forward with his reserves, killing or ejecting fifty Chinese. Barber’s Marines confused the enemy by blowing captured Chinese whistles and bugles. Two Chinese companies pressed hard against Barber’s center platoon. Barber rushed to stabilize the line; during this counter-assault, Barber received a bullet wound to the groin. He plugged his wound with a handkerchief, but unable to stand he continued to direct his Marines on hands and knees, encouraging his men to keep the Chinese at bay.

Fox Company held their position for a second night. Several hundred more Chinese died trying to force the Marines from what everyone was calling Fox Hill. But Barber now had five more dead Marines and another twenty-nine wounded to care for. Elsewhere, the two forward regiments of the 1st Marine Division were also in trouble; twelve Chinese divisions were attacking the 5th and 7th Infantry Regiments around Yudam-ni and the division headquarters at Hagaru-ri. The situation for the Marines was critical: the only way out was to attack south along the MSR to reunite the division at Hagaru. Further, someone had to rescue Barber’s company. On the other side of the mountain, ten more Chinese divisions assaulted the 7th Infantry Division.

The final horror was yet to come.

The Marine withdrawal plan hinged on one critical factor: how long Fox Company could hold out in Toktong Pass. At around 0900 on 29 November, Barber was contacted by radio; initially instructed to fight his way back to Hagaru, Barber argued that if he didn’t retain possession, the Marines would have to retake it in order to secure the road below Toktong Pass. “We can do a good job,” he told the battalion commander.

Barber’s decision to stay the course determined the fate of more than 10,000 Marines trapped on the west side of the Chosen Reservoir. With Fox Company holding Toktong Pass, the Marines decided to move overland to Fox Hill, link up with Barber’s men, clear the dominating terrain astride the MSR, and then move to Hagaru. From there, they would push south to the port of Hungnam for evacuation.

Later that evening, Barber gathered his platoon leaders and confided with them. He told them that higher headquarters planned on relief, but when it would happen was anybody’s guess. He described the situation facing both the 5th and 7th Regiments at Yudam-ni and the division main body. “They’re completely surrounded,” he said. “They’re going to have to fight their way out.” Pointing at the MSR, he flatly stated, “That’s the only way out. If we don’t hold the hill, they haven’t got a chance.”

Fox Company’s third night was going to be crucial. Sensing this, Barber paired up the wounded who could shoot with those still in one piece and then issued as much ammunition as each team could store in their fighting positions. Fully armed and more determined than ever, Barber’s Marines huddled in their holes and waited.

Like clockwork, the Chinese attacked at 0200. Marine outposts reported movement and requested mortar illumination. Flares revealed hundreds of Chinese infantry, bayonets fixed and resembling a cattle stampede, surged toward the perimeter. Fox Company responded with a chorus of red-hot steel. Mortars, artillery from Hagaru (seven miles away), concentrated small arms fire, and hand grenades were directed against wave after wave of Chinese infantry.

That night, Fox Company slaughtered a Chinese regiment. Captain Barber, limping and crawling due to his wounds, continued to inspire his men. Whenever the Chinese seemed about to break through his position, Captain Barber appeared from out of nowhere with a reinforcing squad of Marines. Just before dawn, Barber was wounded a second time, in the leg, and forced to command from a stretcher. For the third straight night, Barber’s Marines withstood Chinese assaults.

At first light, three complete Chinese companies lay dead on the south perimeter. Incredibly, only one Marine beside Barber received a wound and he refused medical treatment. Air strikes and airdrops continued to reinforce Fox Company throughout the day on 30 November. Aside from occasional sniper fire, the Chinese were content to lick their wounds. An entire division had spent itself against a mere 240 Marines.

The following night on Fox Hill was relatively quiet; daylight on 1 December brought good news: the breakout from Yudam-ni was under way. Barber was now more determined than ever to stay in his position until relieved. The relief attack, led by First Lieutenant Kurt Lee and LtCol Raymond G. Davis, was itself a story of profound courage. Attacking throughout that day and through the night in twenty-five below zero weather, 1/7’s relief column reached Fox Company’s perimeter shortly after 1000 on 2 December. After Barber called in a final air strike Davis’ 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, fought its way into the perimeter, crossing through the outposts at 1130. Fox Company remained “King of the Hill.”

Medal of Honor“Captain William E. Barber, United States Marine Corps, is awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding Officer of Company F, Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division (Reinforced), in action against enemy aggressor forces in Korea from 28 November to 2 December 1950. Assigned to defend a three-mile mountain pass along the division’s main supply line and commanding the only route of approach in the march from Yudam-ni to Hagaru-ri, Captain Barber took position with his battle weary troops and , before nightfall, had dug in and set up a defense along the frozen snow-covered hillside. When a force of estimated regimental strength savagely attacked during the night, inflicting heavy casualties and finally surrounding his position following a bitterly fought seven-hour conflict, Captain Barber, after repulsing the enemy, gave assurance that he could hold if supplied by air drops and requested permission to stand fast when orders were received by radio to fight his way back to a relieving force after two reinforcing units had been driven back under fierce resistance in their attempts to reach the isolated troops. Aware that leaving the position would sever contact with the 8,000 Marines trapped at Yudam-ni and jeopardize their chances of joining the 3,000 more awaiting their arrival in Hagaru-ri for the continued drive to the sea, he chose to risk loss of his command rather than sacrifice more men if the enemy seized control and forced a renewed battle to regain the position, or abandon his many wounded who were unable to walk. Although severely wounded in the leg the early morning of the 29th, Captain Barber continued to maintain personal control, often moving up and down the lines on a stretcher to direct the defense and consistently encouraging and inspiring his men to supreme efforts despite the staggering opposition. Waging desperate battle throughout five days and six nights of repeated onslaughts launched by the fanatical aggressors, he and his heroic command accounted for approximately 1,000 enemy dead in this epic stand in bitter sub-zero weather, and when the company was relieved, only 82 of his original 220 men were able to walk away from the position so valiantly defended against insuperable odds. His profound faith and courage, great personal valor and unwavering fortitude were decisive factors in the successful withdrawal of the division from the deathtrap in the Chosen Reservoir sector and reflect the highest credit upon Captain Barber, his intrepid officers and men and the United States Naval Service.”

/s/ Harry S. Truman
President of the United States